Skip to comments.Policy threatens to eclipse science on Delta, Miller says
Posted on 02/28/2006 7:50:56 AM PST by SmithL
STOCKTON - During the first congressional hearing into what might be causing the ecosystem crisis in the Delta, Rep. George Miller said Monday that water agency officials are committed to sending water to San Joaquin Valley and Southern California even it comes at the expense of the Delta's health.
Miller, D-Martinez, said he doubts whether advice coming from scientists will be heeded if they conclude that pumping water out of the Delta is the main cause of the declining ecosystem.
Water pumping is considered one of the three leading suspects causing the Delta's problems, along with invasive species, especially an Asian clam that grows thick in Suisun Bay, and toxic substances like pesticides. Cutting back on water deliveries could be the logical recommendation if the Delta's woes are directly tied to the levels of pumping.
"You wouldn't introduce more clams at this point, would you? You wouldn't add more pesticides, would you?" Miller asked a panel of state and federal scientists.
That question underscored the most highly charged potential fallout of the Delta's problems -- that water deliveries to users in other parts of the state might be part of the reason for the ecological crisis. Reversing the problem could affect irrigation water for 7 million acres of farmland and drinking water for more than 22 million people.
Miller, said that although Monday's hearing was focused on the science underlying the problems, policy decisions should also be examined.
"We can keep talking about the best available science, but when you have the best available science ... it's not being followed," Miller said.
He cited two examples last year when scientists recommended temporary curtailments of water deliveries to protect Delta smelt.
In both instances, which the Contra Costa Times disclosed in July, water agency managers overrode the scientists' advice and maintained higher-than-recommended pumping levels, even though at the time they knew that populations of Delta smelt and other fish were plummeting to alarming depths.
"The battle cry here is sound science. You get sound science, and then you have policy people making decisions to overrule it," Miller said.
The field hearing of the House Resources Committee was convened by committee chairman Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, nine months after it became public that several Delta fish species were at least three years into a steep and inexplicable decline.
That decline, which appears to be indicative of deepening ecological problems in the Delta, continued to worsen last year. Even though two of the four fish species' populations rebounded, those improvements were not as big as expected given good snow and rainfall conditions last year, scientists said.
Meanwhile, Delta smelt, the most imperiled Delta fish species, went from a record low population to a much lower figure last fall.
"The one thing we learned in 2005 is there is no simple answer or smoking gun for this. This is a tough problem," said Chuck Armor of the California Department of Fish and Game.
Pombo said Monday's hearing was the first in what will be several on the Delta's troubles. The next hearing will probably focus on its fragile levees, he said.
Pombo said he wanted to avoid politics during Monday's hearing and delay discussion about what needs to be done so that the focus could be on what scientists know about the problem.
The panel included seven state and federal scientists who reviewed the scope and possible causes of the crisis: Last year, scientists realized that several of the Delta's open-water fish species, including Delta smelt, young striped bass, threadfin shad and longfin smelt, began a sudden and sharp decline in about 2002.
The sweeping nature of the decline within the open-water ecosystem and the fact that it could not be explained by weather patterns or any other identifiable cause alarmed scientists.
They quickly identified pumps, toxics and invasive species as possible culprits, and after a $1.7 million research effort last year came up with two more detailed theories that might explain at least some of the problem.
The first theory involves invasive clams in Suisun Bay that are eating plankton that would otherwise be food for small fish. The second theory asserts that higher pumping rates during the winter, which were instituted to make up for slowdowns meant to protect fish in the spring, appear to be killing more fish than expected.
But scientists said they do not know when the cause will be identified.
"Unfortunately, they are not as far along on the science as I had hoped in terms of conclusions and policy recommendations," Pombo said. "To make any kind of major policy change would be premature."
Five members of Congress, including Pombo and Miller, attended the hearing.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Norwalk, and Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, asked scientists to consider other possible explanations besides pumping rates, which they suggested could include global climate change.
Napolitano asked if fertilizers could be causing the problem and Cardoza wondered if the problem could be partly caused by car batteries and other trash in the Delta.
Miller suggested that the hearings advance more quickly to questions of policy given the severity of the crisis.
"A failing Bay-Delta estuary is not just an environmental problem," Miller said. "The Delta is the heart of California's river system and its fisheries, and when the Delta's vital signs are plummeting, it is a statewide crisis, and we need to act accordingly."
Why a picture of the congressman? Shouldn't we see pictures of the real "victims" here? How about pictures of delta smelt, young striped bass, threadfin shad and longfin smelt. I guess pictures of the fish wouldn't help them but a picture of a congressman is almost always helpful to him. On the other hand I don't really care.
The striped bass is an introduced fish. Tasty and fun to catch, but introduced.
It is easy to dismiss blatant political nonsense when it comes out with psychobabble such as this...
"... declining ecosystem??"
What kind of meaningless BS is that?
I am always suspicious of "advocates" for the dumb critters.
I am ever skeptical of their motives, and certain that their view of the world is static. As in "climate".
River deltas are now eternally unchanging?
Granted, the ignorant swallow that crap without even thinking of using ketchup...
FReepmail me to be added or removed to the ECO-PING list!
It will be interesting to see the outcome of all of this. I suspect this type of issue is going to become more and more a problem. Water rights are even an issue in the great lakes where fresh water is very abundant!
As if, they ever went away! Hey Fog, bet you have a bit on this to help along....
Geo. Miller is so far to the left that even BaBa Boxer has to act even nuttier to keep up...
Hey, Miller, throw yourself into the Delta so the smelt got something to eat.
(Would a smelt eat a fat communist? So many conundrums and so little opportunity to solve them.)
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